Limits

Part of success is learning where there are real limits, and where we perceive limits that don’t really exist. Clearly there are real limits to what we can do; there is also self-delusion. That’s where I get stuck. “I can’t do it” is too great an excuse to give up without evidence to the contrary.

“I don’t have time,” is one of my pet delusions. A teacher’s job is never done. Even in the summer, there’s professional development, planning, reading…

Time is a real limit, but not as much as I would like to think. If I tell myself that I don’t have time to do something – write a book, for instance – what I’m more likely saying is that I’m not willing to commit the time it will take. Most likely I won’t live to be 150 — but I can do a lot in the 24 hours a day I have. All I need to do is look at a list of successful people to see that plenty of people accomplish more in less time than I have. Time is controllable.

“Bad knee,” gets me out of a number of things I don’t want to do. Physically, my knees are my weakest link.

In the fall, my right knee became so painful that walking was nearly impossible. I limped around for weeks before seeing a doctor, not because I’m stoic, but because I assumed that he would tell me what he always tells me: elevate it, ice it, take diclofenac, and be patient. I already know that I have arthritis. Why pay to hear advice I already know?

The tipping point came the weekend before Christmas. More

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Ragnarok

It seemed like the 1900’s would never end. I’m not a hundred years old yet, but I was born midway through that century, and remember figuring out how old I would be in 2000. Back then, while we were ducking for cover under our school desks, fearing that the Russians would be sending us a bomb any day, the future was hard to imagine. Thinking about the twenty-first century — well, would we even still be alive? Wouldn’t the world have blown up by then?

Excuse my pessimism; I’m Scandinavian.

In Norse mythology, the world comes to an end. That’s further than the Greeks or Romans got, I think. The myths don’t say exactly when this will happen, but the circumstances are clear. We call it Ragnarok.

The entire world was created from the corpse of a giant, according to my people, and it will end in ice and fire.The Vikings didn’t tell pretty tales. (Example: Beowulf) Monsters, dismemberment, blood and gore — did their children ever sleep?

The fate of our universe, according to Norse mythology, depends on a tree, whose roots are gnawed by a dragon. When the well that feeds the tree dries up and the dragon eventually gnaws through the root, endless winter will follow. Eventually the tree will fall, and the world will catch on fire. The end.

At some point, a happier ending was tacked on, where the world is reborn from the mess that remains after Ragnarok, but we have our doubts about that. We may seem cheerful, but at heart, we are pessimists. That happy ending may have made it easier for some people to sleep at night, thinking that it wasn’t all for nothing, but we know better. We smile because, why not? Either way, the world is going to end.

Some think that 2012 will be the end of the world, as predicted by the Mayans, who must have been almost as pessimistic as the Norse people. It has to do with numbers and calendars. Since these things are pretty arbitrary, I don’t believe it, anymore than I believed that Y2K would cause the world to end at the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1999, making it impossible for us to return to school on January 3, so why do any homework over break?

But it’s natural to think about apocalypse. When I was a child, people believed that the atom bomb would destroy us — the Fail-Safe scenario. A few years back, global plague was what we all worried about (Twelve Monkeys; Outbreak). Now it’s global warming, precipitating a new ice age, that people make movies about (The Day After Tomorrow). And zombies (I am Legend).

The people who make these movies have read their mythology. You didn’t think the Mother Tree in Avatar was a new idea, did you? Trees have always been symbolic of life; it makes sense that all life would depend on a really big tree and that in the last days some idiot in a gigantic truck would come and hack it down. In the sixties, environmentalists predicted that pollution would eventually kill all the trees, and that would make the atmosphere vanish, and all life would end. So we all started recycling and drinking herbal tea. The recycling part was a good idea; the herbal tea, not so much.

Making resolutions is a way to control the future, to change the doom and destruction we see ourselves heading towards. Tomorrow we will wake up hopeful, feeling that a new age has begun, and the world won’t end. It probably won’t, even if we don’t all go on diets and give up smoking.

Why You Need a Diary (Not a Journal)

Last night we were watching “The Man from Earth.” In one scene, the main character asks another character, “What were you doing a year ago today?” His point: just because you can’t remember what you did, doesn’t mean you weren’t there.

I don’t like spoilers, so I won’t share the importance of this remark, but it did make me think, “What was I doing a year ago today?”

The answer to that was easy: my son was married one year ago today. I remember a lot about that day, but I looked up August 14, 2010, in my diary – just to see what I might have forgotten. That day’s entry was sort of sketchy, but what I’d written triggered more memories that I hadn’t written down. I remembered exactly how I felt – stressed, happy, sad, and ready for the reception to begin.

Which is why I keep a diary.

What is the difference between a diary and a journal? Aside from the impression that ‘diary’ sounds more feminine than ‘journal,’ they have different purposes, in my opinion.

A lot of people, including me, keep journals – especially if they write. My journal is a tool: a place to brainstorm, sketch out ideas and vent feelings. I like thinking on paper; not everyone does.

I’ve kept a journal for a long time. When I look at my old entries – ten or more years ago – I always wish I’d spent less time venting and rambling about stuff and instead made more notes about what was actually happening. Angst-y moods will pass. It’s the little things we tend to forget that give shape to our existence – visits, appointments, phone calls, meals, movies, conversations. Details can trigger the memories we didn’t bother to write down.

For the last three years I’ve kept a diary as well as a journal. I write in the journal when I feel like it. I write in my diary several times a day, every day. What I record is quite mundane: I stop at various points during the day, note the time, and summarize what I’ve been doing: 08:06 / working on blog idea re: diaries.

I’m not experiencing any dementia, but at this point there are too many days in my life to remember each and every one of them. Most of the events are not important, but they are my life, and every now and then it’s nice to visit them again. Another bonus: I can settle all those petty arguments about where we ate or what movie we saw months ago; I can recall gifts I’ve given and received, figure out when I last had my hair cut or talked to my mother. No guessing.

A lot of famous people have kept diaries. I don’t believe it’s because they knew they would be famous and everyone would want to read it. It’s just a habit of mind, a way to give meaning and focus to existence.

This is the value of keeping a diary.  More

Minimal Baggage

Minimalism is a worthy idea. I aspire to be minimal. Most of the time I think I am living a minimal, earth-friendly, small-footprint, getting-things-done kind of life.

Until I have to go somewhere. That’s when I realize how much my life revolves around stuff: having stuff, getting more stuff, fitting stuff in a suitcase small enough to fit in the overhead bin.

Getting packed for a lengthy trip makes me realize two things:

1) I can live without most of my stuff for two or three weeks. Ergo: I don’t need all this stuff.

2) There is a lot of small clutter in my life that takes up space in my suitcase. How much time am I spending each day on clutter?

Years ago I flew home at Christmas to see my parents. They lived in New York; I lived in Chicago at the time. In Chicago I was bumped onto a later flight. My two suitcases, already on the first plane, flew ahead of me. I was assured that in New York they would be safe until I arrived.

You already know what happened: when I arrived in New York, one of my suitcases had gone to visit someone else. It was the one we had nicknamed “Gigantor” – except that I think the real Gigantor had wheels, or rocket jets or something. Mine had to be carried. I never found out who carried Gigantor away, but I am sure that they imagined it was full of expensive gifts. The theives must have been disappointed when they cut the lock off: the only thing inside was my entire KMart wardrobe. (I was poor.)

I never got Gigantor back. I got a check from the airline, bought some new stuff, and went on with life.

Now, all these years later, do I remember anything specific that was in that suitcase? No.

Moral: Stuff is replaceable.

Application: Don’t keep stuff around, thinking that you’ll one day need it. You won’t. And even if you do, you’ll go out and buy a new one.

How to Eliminate Clutter and Minimalize Your Stress

I am an organized person. Not a neat-freak, but I dislike clutter. Even so, it accumulates. My living space, however, is fairly spartan. How do I manage this?

My De-cluttering System:  More

In the Cloud

About a week ago my MacBook started doing something alarming. As I was typing along, the screen would suddenly go dark. Not completely black – I could still see my desktop, but too dark to see what I was typing. If I shut down and restarted, it was fine – for a while. After a few days of this, it stopped being fine, even for a while.

MacBooks aren’t supposed to do alarming things. Annoying things, perhaps. Sometimes the beachball of doom spins endlessly until I force an unresposive app to quit, but that’s easily fixable. No permanent damage.

Having a too-dark screen doesn’t leave many possibilities for noodling around, trying to figure out a fix. So I went to visit the geniuses.

I had never been to the Mac Store before. It’s not like other stores – no aisles, just large tables where customers played with iPads and Macbook Airs. At the back of the store was a long bar with stools. Customers were seated on the stools, and blue-shirted geniuses behind the bar typed into Macbook Pros. There was no paper anywhere.

Before I could brace myself for frustration, a smiling genius approached me, carrying an iPad. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

I did not have an appointment. I should have known that geniuses do not speak to mortals without an appointment, but I had foolishly assumed that since macs rarely need service, there would be nobody in line.  More

Mandatory Opportunities

While I am at heart an anarchist, I admit that many rules are sensible. Wearing a seatbelt needs to be a law because some people don’t have the individual sense to preserve their own lives. And we’re all here together in the circle of life.

I said that wrong. I mean we’re all together in the spiral of ‘out of control insurance rates.’

What I object to are laws that are actually thinly-disguised ‘mandatory opportunities.’ Laws should protect us from people who hurt other people, not from ourselves.

Compulsory education is such a law. Up until the age of about fourteen, it makes sense to compel children to go to school. For one thing, some parents don’t take their responsibilities seriously, and their children might never get an education otherwise. For another, it gives everyone the basics. What they choose to do with those basic skills is a different matter. But we all learn to read, write, and do math. We all learn where Ohio is and how many inches there are in a foot.

Politicians talk a lot about education. They all have an answer, even though most of them haven’t been in a school for years. But nobody will touch the issue of compulsory education, a ‘mandatory opportunity’ for all kids, because America is supposed to be the country where all are educated, not just a select few skimmed off the top of the primary school vat. We don’t believe in ‘tracking’ kids by performance or ability — an educational class system. We don’t want to leave anyone behind, even those who drag their feet or sit down and refuse to budge.

What we teach kids is that there are no consequences. There is nothing a child can do that will get him or her kicked out of school permanently — until the age of eighteen, when they are dumped into a society that gives few second chances.

I believe in second chances. Messing up teaches us useful lessons. More

The Obligatory Kindle Post

I got a Kindle for Christmas, and now am obliged to write about how it looks like a real page, how cool it is to be able to carry my library with me and won’t it be great for travel, and how it will revolutionize reading, writing, printing, and life as we know it. And I will probably admit that while I love reading on my Kindle, I will never part with my dead-tree collection.

Consider all that said. I’ve read plenty about eBooks in general, and the Kindle in particular, and that pretty much says it all. If you want a reading list, I can refer you.

What I do have to say about it is this (and these observations are by no means unique, either):

I love to read — in theory. In reality, I have trouble seeing the page. I thought that going to bifocals would make it easier to read, but most of the time my arms aren’t long enough to hold the book where I can see it. And I don’t like holding books. If I can read with my book on the desk and plenty of light, it works, but reading in bed is tedious. Reading from my computer or iPhone hurts my eyes.

Kindle is allowing me to read more. Easy to hold, easy to turn pages, easy to adjust the size of the print. It keeps your page. You can write notes and underline without messing up your book. It’s like having an exercycle or a treadmill — now I have no excuse.

There are many people who love books as objects – the binding, the pages, the feel of a volume in their hands. I’m sure there were readers who didn’t want to give up their scrolls when the codex was becoming popular. But Amazon doesn’t sell a lot of scrolls these days. Eventually more ebooks will be sold than paper books.

I am quite ready to get rid of as many books as I can. More

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